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Book History 5 (2002) 105-142

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Dickinson as Child's Fare:
The Author Served up in St. Nicholas

Ingrid Satelmajer


Two Emily Dickinson poems published by St. Nicholas, a prestigious children's magazine, stand as centerpieces of a larger effort to market Dickinson posthumously as "children's friend" in the 1890s. Unsettling to look at, the poems clash with the still-popular conception of Dickinson as retiring spinster and with Dickinson's well-documented reticence toward print. Even accounting for the fact that the publication of these and other Dickinson periodical poems took place after the literal "death of the author" in 1886, the texts suggest a marketing ploy gone awry, the editorial push of the poet into an incongruous arena. Throughout the 1890s, Dickinson's editors added titles; normalized punctuation, spelling, and grammar; changed [End Page 105] rhyme schemes; and added or deleted lines. 1 Poems such as the St. Nicholas texts of "Morning" and "The Sleeping Flowers" seem to heap insult upon injury. The visual packaging of the former and the altering of the latter "in order to have the rhyme perfect, in a child's magazine" dare us not to take them seriously and appear to prove the need for the radical cries of late to return to the manuscripts and "unedit" Dickinson. 2 By foregrounding the efforts to turn Dickinson into an easily consumable textual commodity, however, I hope to suggest the benefits of her editors' project. As a magazine highly skilled at asserting the value of print publication, St. Nicholas could help legitimate the efforts of Dickinson's editors to introduce her into print culture. Further, I would like to argue that St. Nicholas and indeed nineteenth-century periodicals as a whole bear further consideration as sites where textual desire and appetite could be created—even if that appetite was for the sweetened products of a children's magazine such as St. Nicholas. For too long, textual scholarship has dismissed periodical texts as variant readings to books. As a result, scholars have turned a blind eye to such poems and the ways they functioned as texts in their own right and as legitimate players in the scene we have treated as if dominated by books.


Since Thomas Johnson's 1955 variorum, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, scholars have had ready access to a list of Dickinson poems published in periodicals. Subsequent research has led to updated lists of Dickinson's periodical publications during her lifetime; poems in periodicals following Dickinson's death, however, have been all but ignored. 3 What attention the 1890s have received has centered instead on the books that were published. To review in brief, the publication of Dickinson's poetry after her 1886 death began with her sister, Lavinia, turning first to sister-in-law Susan Dickinson to undertake the editing of the manuscripts. The choice was sensible—both for Susan's own intellectual talents and for her position as the primary recipient of Dickinson's letters and a trusted literary confidante of the poet. Susan's progress was slow, however, and Lavinia, impatient with her pace, reclaimed the manuscripts and proceeded on two fronts. First, she enlisted the assistance of Thomas Wentworth Higginson—prominent man of letters, frontline abolitionist, key woman's rights advocate, and erstwhile correspondent of Dickinson's—who agreed to help if someone else put the manuscripts in order. Next, she recruited Mabel Loomis Todd—Amherst resident, possessor of her own literary aspirations, and (not least) the mistress of Austin Dickinson (Susan's husband). Todd would undertake the [End Page 106] efforts of copying the manuscripts and Todd and Higginson would undertake together the broader editorial tasks. Such tasks included selecting which poems to publish, choosing between variants, and, more controversially, adding titles and at times incorporating rather aggressive textual changes (the normalization of punctuation, spelling, and grammar; alteration of rhyme schemes; and addition or deletion of lines). In the end, four titles appeared, all published by the Boston-based Roberts Brothers: Poems by Emily Dickinson (1890); Poems: Second Series (1891); Letters of Emily...


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